Most of us are familiar with the story of the good samaritan, the man who stopped to help an injured enemy. Most don’t know of a relatively new experiment that demonstrated one facet of what enables us to be good samaritans.
Maya has been going to the real preschool, not the summer camp version, for two weeks now. Right from the start, she wanted to ride her bike to school. The ride is just over a mile, something she managed with aplomb right from the start. I started for school a little early that first day not knowing how long she might take. We were at the school way early.
Last week, we both got up late and by the time we were ready to head out, I knew we would be at least 10 minutes late. The school doesn’t insist on punctuality in preschool and pre-K and so arriving late would not have posed any issue (they issue a tardy pass for kindergarten and older kids who come late). But, I was in a bit of a tizzy, hurrying Maya along. A part of me was conscious of my action and the uselessness of it, but I persisted.
Maya for her part was all of three years that morning. She stopped a million times along the way, stopping to examine something in the bushes, pointing out some pretty flowers, stating that we would be late, pointing to the different buttons to push for the different pedestrian crossings (and making us wait an extra turn at the lights) and on and on. Till then, she had pretty much biked the entire distance non-stop and I hadn’t expected this behavior from her on a day she was late. At some point, I decided to give up my insistence on moving right along and making “late” sound like a dastardly crime. I wondered why I was so insistent on not being late, what subconscious attitudes triggered this instance of stopping to smell the roses. I also thought that this is how we socialize our children with various neuroses and rigid attitudes of being. Instead of enjoying our time together, of being glad that Maya had insisted on biking even when Shanthala offered to drop her in the car, I was fretting over being late!
In 1978, two American psychologists, Daniel Batson and John Darley, conducted an experiment to seek the conditions under which the good samaritan in us comes out and the conditions in which it does not. They asked a group of undergraduate divinity students at Princeton to volunteer for a study on public speaking, to see how quickly they could think and act. One group of volunteers were told to deliver a lecture to freshmen on employment opportunities after graduating from the divinity school and another group were told to deliver a lecture to freshmen on the parable of the good Samaritan. They were all told that they had to go to a different building to deliver the lecture. One group was told that they were late and had to hurry, one group was told that they could just make it in time if they walked quickly and the final group was told that they had time to make it to the other building.
On the way to the other building, the students passed a poorly dressed man slumped against a wall, clearly looking like he needed help. For effect, the man coughed and groaned as the students passed him. Which group of students do you think was most likely to stop and help the man ? Not the group whose brains had been primed by thoughts of the good Samaritan, but the group who were told that there was no need to hurry. 63% of the group who were told that they had time stopped to help compared to 10% of the group that were told that they were late. Overall, only 40% of the people stopped to help and these were students who were studying to be of service to others. Batson and Darley found that personality traits were not as important a predictor of being a good Samaritan as being in a hurry was. The study also found that many of those who did not help arrived anxious, riven by conflict over what they had done because of what they had been told to do and what was the right thing to have done.
In a world increasingly hurried, where multi-tasking is revered, the ability to stop and pay attention to something that is outside our focus or our goal, is becoming impossible. Not so long ago, before the invention of the wristwatch and the factory whistle, late was not a commonly used word or a reproachful behavior. And I was doing my little part in socializing Maya to grow up hurried, to not be late, even when it didn’t make a difference, instead of enjoying a late summer morning.
Interestingly, John Darley, is also known for another famous experiment that showed the conditions under which people didn’t help someone in trouble. In 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered in the presence of 38 witnesses. None of them even called the police. The case shocked the country and drew cries of the alienation of cities and such. John Darley conducted an experiment with Bibb Latane, from which he concluded that people don’t stop to help when there were many people because they either assumed that someone else would do the job for them or they assumed that since no one else was stopping to help, there was no problem.
My mind harks back frequently to a quote I read as attributed to the Indian president and philsopher, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. He said: “All men are desirous of peace, but most are not desirous of the things that lead to peace”. We all want to raise curious, healthy and contented children, but we can’t seem to practice the ways in which we get there.
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